Chatfield vs. Caledonia football matchup dripping with intrigue
No. 1-ranked Chatfield hosts No. 3 Caledonia on Friday in a football game that matches unbeaten teams and celebrated programs.
The race for Section 1AA football supremacy is well under way, and after six weeks, there are two unquestioned frontrunners: No. 1 Chatfield, the defending state champion, and No. 3 Caledonia, a perennial power that needs no introduction.
On Friday, those two frontrunners square off at Chatfield's Bernatz Field for a 7 p.m. kickoff with an opportunity to seize pole position in the race for state-tournament qualification.
The Gophers and Warriors have combined to win 15 of the last 28 Class AA state championships, and considering the starts that both teams have enjoyed this season, both appear to be legitimate contenders for yet another state title. But prior to their respective runs at the Class AA crown, they’ll square off against each other with the top seed of the upcoming section tournament almost certainly at stake.
“The biggest thing is, it’s nice to get that 1 seed, because our section is extremely tough,” Chatfield coach Jeff Johnson said. “So whoever those 2 and 3 seeds are, that’s going to be a great game, and the loser of this game could very well find themself in that game, and we don’t want to be in that position. We think we can handle ourselves and take care of business, but that 2-versus-3 game in this section is always going to be a barn burner. It’s going to be a game that could very well be better than other section championship games in the state. We just have so many good teams in our section right now.”
The Gophers did indeed claim the section’s top seed last season and cruised in relatively comfortable fashion from there, defeating each of their three section opponents by a combined score of 160-29. From there, the rest was history, as Chatfield won its next three games, including a nail-biter of a state title-game win over West Central Area/Ashby to secure its fifth state championship in school history.
The Warriors, meanwhile, experienced their first “down” year in quite some time last season. In the five years prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Caledonia strung together an incredible streak of 71 straight victories which led to five consecutive state titles. But in 2021, following a 2020 campaign that was canceled outright before the postseason could begin, the Warriors struggled, by their standards, to the tune of a Week 1 loss that snapped their winning streak, followed several weeks later by a first-round exit in the section tournament to sixth-seeded Lewiston-Altura.
“At the end of the day, that falls on me,” Caledonia coach Carl Fruechte said. “They’re great kids. Very proud of them. It was a difficult year. They went through a lot of adversity that people just didn’t realize, and that was fine. We’re not going to go crying for ourselves. We’re not going to go whining. We’re not going to be making excuses.
“At the end of the day, I just don’t think I was tough enough on them. I didn’t mean to, but I think I was just a little too soft, to be quite frank, and that falls on me. We’re always learning, and that goes the same for me.”
The Warriors didn’t wait long to get back on track this season.
At 5-0, they’ve returned to their winning ways. Caledonia running back Eric Mauss has put together a strong start to the season, averaging 92.2 yards rushing per contest and a team-high five rushing touchdowns to pace a skill-position group that also features six other players who have punched in at least one score on the ground.
On defense, the Warriors are perhaps even stronger, as they’ve allowed just 26 combined points to their opponents this season along with six sacks and nine forced turnovers.
“They always play tough defense,” Johnson said. “Even last year during their down year, they had a stingy defense. They have tough kids, and they’re weight-room kids, too. They lift hard as a team, and they can run. They’re fast and very aggressive. Year in and year out, they’re going to be one of the tougher defenses that we’re going to see, and that’s no different this year, too.”
But Caledonia will have its hands full on Friday in a way that it hasn’t yet this season. The same also goes for Chatfield.
“I think we play a pretty good brand of football down here in this section, to be quite honest. I wasn’t surprised at all to see them have the success that they did last season. I think Chatfield represented our section well,” Fruechte said.
He added: “I’m really impressed with their offensive and defensive lines. To me, everything starts there. I think they’re very physical. I think they move well. And then of course you have good athletes behind the offensive line. That’s what makes teams special. That’s what sticks out to me about them.”
The Gophers’ most notable athlete, senior running back and Minnesota State University, Mankato commit Sam Backer, who Johnson identified as “quite possibly the biggest weapon in the state,” is back to his brilliant best this season with 15 rushing touchdowns already through five games. Backer has also piled up 1,205 yards on the ground — nearly twice as many as his next closest competitor in the section — on just 66 carries, good for a modest 18.3 yards-per-carry average.
The Warriors know all about Backer. They know what he brings to the table.
Stopping him is another matter.
“Obviously we have to be gap sound,” Fruechte said. “We have to make sure that we have our feet buzzing and that we have our heads up, because we can’t go diving at the kid, can’t go trying to grasp him. He’s got that real nice spin move. I think he’s got a nice stiff arm. We have to be really solid in our gaps and make sure that we’re trying to run through and wrap him up.
“With that said, too, I like their wide receivers. I like their H-back — 24 or 5, depending on who it is; 12 is a real nice running back, as well. They’re loaded for bear, and at the end of the day, it’s a good thing. We love competition and that’s what we’re about.”
Stewartville at Kasson-Mantorville, 7 p.m. Friday: This could be considered “proving time” for Stewartville. The Tigers have gone through the first five weeks of the season demolishing the competition en route to earning a No. 1 state Class AAAA ranking. Stewartville is outscoring its opponents by a mammoth 56-5. Yes, 56-5. But those numbers need context, with the Tigers having played just one team with a winning record, 3-2 Byron (Stewartville won 44-0). Stewartville just might get challenged on Friday night as it travels to take on 4-1 and No. 10-ranked Kasson-Mantorville. K-M hasn’t lost since its opener, when it fell 28-17 to Byron.
Lourdes at Plainview-Elgin-Millville, 7 p.m. Friday: The Lourdes football team must still be huffing and puffing with all of the on-field-drama it’s been through the last two weeks. First it was the Eagles giving up a 28-point third-quarter lead against La Crescent-Hokah, only to come back and win 41-36. Then it was Lourdes notching one of its most thrilling wins in years one week ago, using an Aidan Jahns field goal in the final 2 seconds of regulation to beat what had been a No. 1-ranked Cannon Falls team 24-22. It was enough to loft Lourdes into the state poll this week, at No. 5. Now it has a date Friday with one of the sturdiest teams in southeastern Minnesota, No. 7-ranked Plainview-Elgin-Millville. “We are coming off two crazy games and two good games, with lots of emotion,” Lourdes coach Mike Kesler said. “I felt like last night (Tuesday) we didn’t practice very well. But I think our kids are mentally and physically exhausted. That was a physical game with Cannon Falls. But we don’t have time to look back now. We’ve got to focus.” P-E-M hasn’t lost a game since being edged by Cannon Falls 24-18 in Week 2. The Bulldogs have been doing what they always do, playing great defense. They’re allowing just 13 points per game. Still, P-E-M coach Kevin Lamb isn’t content with what he’s seen from his guys. He is striving for them to become more of a “team.” “We have not played a consistent four quarters and I think that’s because our guys are not cohesive as a group yet," he said. "We need for them to be more concerned about doing their job for the team and to start playing for each other.”
Owatonna at John Marshall, 7 p.m. Friday: Owatonna, first-year JM coach Kyle Riggott says, is what he hopes his football program can resemble in future years. The Huskies have perennially been among the top teams in the state the last decade, though they aren’t quite that this season. Owatonna is 3-2 overall, with losses to top-10 ranked teams Mankato West and Mayo. JM is nowhere close to Owatonna status right now. It enters Friday’s game 0-5, has scored just six points all season and given up 52 and 55 points in its last two games. Still, Riggott is nowhere close to give-up mode when it comes to this team and this program. “We just keep believing that we are sleeping giants,” Riggott said. “We know that we are young, inexperienced and mistake-ridden. But there is an immense amount of potential on this team and if we stop digging for it, we’re never going to find it." JM gets some injured players back for Friday's game: Quarterback Nico Chhin, running back/receiver/defensive back Darius Jordan (played a limited role last week) and speedster receiver Michael Nicometo and offensive lineman Ben Laack are possible to return.
Mayo at New Prague, 7 p.m. Friday: The No. 9-ranked Spartans were so close to handing defending Class AAAAA state champion Mankato West its first loss since 2019, holding not one, but two 14-point leads, but nonetheless came up just short in a 28-24 loss. But coach Donny Holcomb and company kept their heads up high, knowing they are right there among the state’s best. Carter Holcomb, too, is proving he’s one of the best in Minnesota. The junior receiver recorded a season-high 216 yards receiving with a touchdown on eight receptions against West, which accounted for 75% of quarterback Rees Grimsrud’s 12 completions. Holcomb now has 800 yards receiving on 37 receptions (21.6 yards per catch) with nine touchdowns in just five games. He also averages close to 40 yards per kick return. Last week, New Prague (3-2) rebounded from a 34-0 drubbing to Northfield with a 55-6 win over John Marshall. Nathan Burkhardsmeier had three rushing touchdowns as well as a pick-6 on defense — one of two interceptions returned for touchdowns by the NP defense.
Century at Northfield, 7 p.m. Friday: Century is looking to build on last week's 20-7 win over Austin. This game could decide the No. 3 seed in Section 1AAAAA. Harrison Esau was a stellar 13-for-14 passing last week for 198 yards and two TDs. He now has 903 yards passing with 8 TDs. Josh Berg has 5 TD catches, and he scored on a blocked field goal return and TD reception last week. Coach Jon Vik said Century has to brace for a physical game this week against the Raiders: “They are large across the front line on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they have a multi-talented quarterback who is a threat as a runner and a passer. They have a big athletic tight end and a physical backfield all of whom can make plays.” Northfield plays a base 3-4 style defense and is big up front. “Last week we played better overall as a team,” Vik said. “Our special teams played a role and we continue to grow in all phases of the game. This week poses a different challenge but we are working each day to build on this past week's success.”